Wikipedia: the night before the flack attack

Steve Rubel is asking some important questions:

So far this year, the mainstream media has cited Wikipedia as an authoritative body of knowledge nearly 100 times. […] What should someone in PR do if he/she finds inaccurate information?

As Wikipedia is relied upon as a credible source by the press, will these and other companies begin to edit articles? What guidelines should we follow? My initial feeling is, if you can prove the article false, challenge it. If it’s true, leave it. You’ll only make matters worse. Besides, inaccurate information on Wikipedia doesn’t stay that way for long. What’s your take?

(Coming next week in Part II: what should you do if your client/brand is not listed in Wikipedia? Is it ethical or proper to create an article?)

The best source for starting to explore this issue is Wikipedia itself; more exactly, a page included in Wikipedia’s Problems FAQ and titled Autobiography (formerly known as Don’t create articles about yourself). Here’s an excerpt relevant to this discussion:

Some of us feel that even editing an article about yourself is best avoided […]. If you do so, please only add verifiable information and be especially careful to respect the neutral point of view. Noting objections or corrections on the talk page may be appropriate.

Similar principles apply to articles about works that you are primarily responsible for – the company you run, the website you started, the book you wrote. Use common sense.

Now, it’s important to note that this is not (yet) a Wikipedia policy page, it’s a semi-policy:

Semi-policy pages are an attempt to codify and write down long-standing unwritten rules that have widespread support. They should be treated as guidelines, not as strict rules.

In the Talk area for this page there’s an interesting exchange between Wikipedians, including a person — username: Pfwebadmin — who’s working for a "US-based non-profit that does reproductive health work in Asia, Africa & Latin America." Pfwebadmin wanted to see an article about his organization on Wikipedia, but was reluctant to start one, and asked what’s the proper way to handle this.

Someone responded that this kind of things have been anticipated, but didn’t happened. What’s crucial is that the article, if started, should conform to the "non-negotiable" policy of maintaining a Neutral Point of View (NPOV); for that, the authors should stick "as much as possible, to facts that can be verified using third-party sources."

(I’ll skip a juicy bit about how Pfwebadmin has offered money to any experienced Wikipedian to start and expand an article about his employer, and that the article has been created, although the money was refused.)

There are a couple of things that Pfwebadmin did right – and they can serve as a start in responding to Steve’s question:

  • he joined the community, by starting a user page
  • was upfront about the relationship with his employer
  • was aware of Wikipedia’s policies (especially the NPOV) and rules (Don’t start a page about yourself), and respected them
  • asked for guidance
  • made clear that he’ll try to stay out of the editing process, and that he will disclose any edits
  • asked fellow employees to contact him before trying to edit the page, especially if they’re not familiar with Wikipedia
  • asked people to discuss the issue of an employee starting/changing the page of a company ("Enable me and my organization to do right by Wikipedia.")

His care for respecting Wikipedia’s ethos was noticed and appreciated. Here’s what another wikipedian — user name: Lotsofissues — wrote:

Thank you for your careful consideration of POV on this site. It’s refreshing to see after discovering/deleting so much vanity/marketing daily.

It’s a "success story" – at least for now. The page on Pfwebadmin’s employee is very short, and it didn’t experience any editing war so far. But this could change, since the organization focuses on reproduction and AIDS/HIV prevention issues, which are sensitive topics.

There are a couple of things that you might want to consider before jumping to start or edit a Wikipedia page about your employer:

  • I think it’s unlikely that most journalists –and their editors– are taking the information provided by Wikipedia as facts, without checking them for accuracy, especially if the subject matter is controversial. Steve points to a page showing that Wikipedia has been cited by mainstream media nearly 100 times so far this year. But the number itself doesn’t tell much (and, by the way, most citations are from English-speaking media, and at least two of them are from WebProNews reposts of blog postings). Sometime Wikipedia is indicated just as a resource for more information. Also, look at the terms for which Wikipedia is used as a source: definitions of podcasting, phishing, anime, weblog, webcasting, folksonomy, spamming, spyware, warez... — and Sauerkraut. So, let’s see these numbers in perspective.
  • Is your company important enough to have a page in Wikipedia? Would you expect to find an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica about your employer? No? Then why do you want a page in Wikipedia? Aren’t there better ways of making people aware of your company and engaging in a relationship with them than starting a page on Wikipedia?
  • How much of what people know about your company is likely to be influenced by what they read in Wikipedia about it?
  • You will have to invest time in maintaining the accuracy of your page. You’ll have to be prepared to do research, to find third-party endorsements for things that you take for granted. You’ll have to go through editing wars, and to explain why you’re adding to, or deleting, or modifying the page. Are you ready for this type of work and involvement?
  • Finally, if you are a PR professional, ask yourself: would you have considered editing the page about a company if the company was not your client? And, more important: what impact a (perceived) "flack attack" is likely to have on Wikipedia as a community and as a resource?

On the other hand, it would be unrealistic to think that companies (and PR professionals) will shy from involvement in influencing what Wikipedia says about them. That’s why it’s better to start now a process of establishing the rules of engagement. Wait, Pfwebadmin already thought about this (emphasis added):

I’m wondering if there is room for a project of some sorts to help facilitate people and entities that will have to walk these Autobiography issues choosing to walk them correctly. I’m basically trying to create, on my company’s discussion page and on my login’s discussion page, a blueprint for how to act with respect to this sort of stuff. I wish there were a few options in somewhat a cousin vein to a license of sort that I could use there instead of having to try to create the wheel and also figure out which and how many spokes should go in it. Maybe even something that I could then get my president to sign off on being our company’s official policy towards its employees’ interaction with Wikipedia? Does that make sense? Strikes me that as Wikipedia and Wikipedia’s relevance grow, these sorts of issues will be ever-present and increasingly important to address.

There’s no such project right now, but we should start one soon. Does anyone have Jimmy Wales‘s phone number on Rolodex? Scratch that. Now we’ll have do discuss it with the whole community. Heh.


  1. Well, here’s a thought. I wanted to add biographies on some of the legends I worked with, particularly Fred Hoar.

    How big a name do you need to be to be on Wikipedia? What constitutes worthiness? Can I be in there? Who better to write a biography on me than me – I did win a child picture contest at 19 months, and that’s pretty newsworthy 32 years later still.

  2. Jeremy, I don’t have an answer to your question – how big a name you need to be to be on Wikipedia? But you can find some background on this issue on this FAQ page: Wikipedia:Criteria for inclusion of biographies.

    Can I be in there? Sure :), but it’s better to wait until other people will start a page for you. Why? It’s discussed in Autobiography.

    I wanted to add biographies on some of the legends I worked with, particularly Fred Hoar.That will be perfectly legitimate, IMO. Did you start the page? I couldn’t find it in Wikipedia.

  3. Pingback: PR meets the WWW » Wikipedia editors discussing PR firms participation - Rules of Engagement in Social Media Commons

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